Ping Tracker

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Lack of Greenery (2)

If you missed it, Click here to read Part 1 of this series.

Because Chinese city-dwellers grow up and live their lives in these surroundings, they hold very different ideas about the environment. For example, because all cities have street sweepers who clean up the city litter, when people buy something in a shop, they unwrap it on their way out and toss the wrapping on the street without hesitation. When they are done smoking a cigarette or eating a banana, they toss the leftovers aside, no hesitation. Because someone will clean it up for them, they simply do not care. Let me be clear - this isn't everybody. But it's a sizable amount of people. 

The same, unfortunately, can be true in parks, tourist sites, and what would otherwise be very nice, clean, green environments. Generally speaking, parks and tourist sites are kept pretty clean, but litter can sometimes be seen. 

When you travel to lakes or see rivers or just look out the window of your train compartment, you will see many places on the edge of town where, just behind people’s houses, they will throw their trash on the ground. 
Outside of Shanghai
Outside of Guiyin

This trash builds and builds and isn’t destined for anywhere. It is their personal garbage dump. Also, on long train trips, people will eat a lot of instant noodles, and upon finishing them, will open the train window and throw out what they didn’t eat. However, a lot of China's poor people take advantage of their recycling policy and pick up the plastics to get some money back.

This is one of the most sad parts about being in China. From my experience, the average Chinese city-dweller has little awareness of being green and environmentally friendly because of the environment they grow up in. Many children in the cities would rather just sit and watch TV than go outside to see the green of a park or visit scenic places. When they get to these places, they say “Oh, that’s cool. Can we leave?” The lack of appreciation of natural beauty is a reality among more than a few Chinese young city people. The older generation, being more traditional and more likely to come from a rural village or suburb, know how to appreciate nature’s beauty and appreciate when people do not waste food, waste water, and litter the streets. 

The people who live in the rural areas also have a better appreciation of the environment, not because of environmental education classes, but because it is where they live. They treasure the environment they live in. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Grass Rubbing Amongst a Lack of Greenery

(Part 1 of a 2 or 3 part series)

Because you are a foreigner, while you are staying in China, you will likely be staying in the midst of a large or mid-sized city in one of the many, many high-rise hotels or apartment buildings.

Every person in the city lives in one of these apartment buildings. 
This is super, super nice. Don't expect to see many (if any) this clean. 

Chinese cities are very different from American cities and the environment leads to different attitudes among the Chinese people about the environment and green places. 

Chinese cities all have parks, which are usually pretty green and pretty awesome places, but outside these parks, there is a conspicuous lack of color throughout the cities. 
at Beijing's Beihai Park

The buildings are usually all the same shade of gray or off-white, and the streets are the usual black and the sidewalks are grey or have red and yellow tiling. 
This is a pic I took in Guangzhou. See? There's just not much color

Just not real green...

These colors are absolutely everywhere and rarely, if ever, vary throughout the city. Psychologically, it's pretty depressing on an unconscious level. Streets sometimes have a line of trees on the side walk New York City style, but those are the only sign of plant life in the heart of the city. But because everything's so compact, it's rare.


Story Time!

When I was in Lanzhou, I was sitting outside with my friend, Xia Fei, outside of the Lanzhou University of Technology library. This was mid-July, and I had been in China for about 5 months or so. 
(about where the grass is on the mid-left of this picture)

Anyway, we were sitting and just chatting about life and girls and all kinds of stuff, when I started rubbing my hand on the grass - kind of tussling it, and pulling out a couple of blades.....that's a weird way to describe it, but you know what I mean. I just couldn't stop. Over the course of the entire afternoon (literally - we chatted probably 3 or 4 hours total), I kept rubbing that grass. I couldn't figure out why until a LOOONG time later. 

I hadn't touched grass in 5 months. That's why I couldn't stop doing it. I had been so engulfed by city life in a desert environment that I hadn't touched grass in almost half a year. 

It doesn't sound like much, but it's really something that should be thought about. How would your life, your attitudes, your mindset, be affected by an environment so urbanized that the touch of grass evokes such a response?

After telling this story, I said to my friend Monica, "I know this sounds stupid, but..." and then she immediately says, "Oh no, that's not stupid at all! There's just something built into human nature that needs trees, needs grass, needs fresh air and's not stupid, I totally understand."

And I realized that she was right. There is something within us that is awakened when we are in the presence of nature and natural beauty - even a city park. It's an indescribable feeling of basic connectedness and peace - a yearning for our ancestral roots. If a person goes their whole life without having these soulful moments, something beautiful has been lost. 

We can't live a life of credit cards, iPhones, and a job,

and forget the sound of the wind as it blows through the mountain's trees.

If we reach that point as a species, then we will have lost a crucial part of our humanity. 

(Part 1 of 2 or 3 - Stay Tuned!)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Peace Corps and Chinese Dialects!

I'm giving some serious thought to joining the Peace Corps. For those of you overseas, the Peace Corps is a volunteer agency run by American government dedicated to worldwide community development through education, community work, environmental protection, and so on. It's a highly respected organization and I am in the midst of filling out my application. It's a 27-month commitment. 3 months training, 24 months serving abroad. I will request to be in China, of course. Language is a really important part of what they do, and I desperately want to become fluent in Mandarin Chinese. I'm only roughly halfway there. I've got more than enough to review websites for basic learners and to teach beginning Chinese classes (Grasp Chinese's Excellent Program - Review), but I'm only fluent in certain situations.

I'd be honored to join them.

I'll be back to talk about that in other posts.

I know that this is a little behind the curve, but I just saw a website that Lanzhou had been awarded the "Best International Tourist City" in China in May 2010. Wow!

Check it out here! Also, check out the construction of an "old street" in Lanzhou. They are trying to recreate the area to look like the period of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Click here to read.


This is what I actually wanted to talk about today - "The Myth of the Chinese Language"

Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as the Chinese language in the sense that if you learn one particular set of words/phrases/grammar (ie. a language), you can have a conversation with any native speaker from that country. Example, if you learn the English phrase, “Hey, do you have any plans tonight?”, you can ask any single person in America and they will understand and respond in a way the asker will understand. This is not exactly the case in China. 
China is a very big and very regional country, especially with dialects.

In China, there is a standard language, 普通话, otherwise known as Mandarin, but many older citizens cannot speak it because they never learned it in school. Older citizens and citizens in far-flung rural of China speak their own 方言, or dialect, and nothing else. 
Mandarin Chinese is based on the Beijing dialect. "Speak good Mandarin, convenient for you, me, him."

Interestingly enough, if you speak Mandarin, nearly every Chinese person will understand you, but their response to you will be in dialect, so you will probably not understand it.....I met that situation so many times while I was traveling in China. The places with the most standard Mandarin that I came across were Beijing and Lanzhou.

In contrast to America, every place in China has its own dialect. Nearly every single city in China has its own language, which is called “[insert city name] Hua”. There is Beijing Hua, Shanghai Hua, Lanzhou Hua, Kunming Hua, etc.. There are even cities which have several different dialects within their respective districts. For example, Wenzhou, a manufacturing and industrial city in coastal Zhejiang Province, has several different dialects within its city limits. 

The overall Wenzhou Hua is acknowledged to be one of the most difficult dialects to master and was used by the Chinese to send secret messages to each other during Japan’s World War II invasion of China. Even the Chinese who were working for Japan could not decode the messages because the dialect was too difficult to understand. 

"Due to its unique grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation, the language is basically impossible for any non-local to understand." - From Wikipedia. It's even got it's own article: "Wenzhounese"

However, the interesting thing about these language families is that although the pronunciation vastly differs, a written conversation using Chinese characters can take place with no problem because the characters always carry the same meaning. For example:

These characters always, always, always, mean restroom - no matter how they are pronounced in dialect.

The problem of dialects is a frustrating one for any foreigner learning Chinese because even if they have become fluent in Mandarin, they still may be unable to communicate with some Chinese. Do not become discouraged, as even the Chinese have difficulty understanding. 
For example: these people here.

The guy is named Benjamin and the girl is named Christina. I lived in Lanzhou, in Gansu Province. Benjamin is from Huan County, Gansu Province. Christina is from the neighboring Province of Shaanxi.  Benjamin's parents could not speak Mandarin - only their dialect. Christina even had a very difficult time understanding them - maybe understanding 60% of the time. For me, it was pretty much impossible. I had learned Mandarin with a tiny sprinkling of Lanzhou Hua. 

I don't really have a conclusion here, but yeah, the sheer number of dialects in Chinese is just ridiculous. It's a hard situation to be in if you were just starting to learn Chinese and you get thrown into all these ridiculously impossible language situations. But don't let it get you down, just keep trying, and eventually you will catch on if you've got someone to help you out. 

If you're interested in learning Chinese, check this program out!

Read My Grasp Chinese Website Review

Monday, October 24, 2011

Chinese Hospitality

China in general has a very hospitable culture. People are very open to foreigners and love to be in their company. In your travels, if you meet difficulties such as finding places to go or restaurants to eat at, people on the street are perfectly happy to help you out if you are polite and can speak a little Chinese. If you travel with friends to their hometowns to meet their family, you will find that Chinese familial hospitality is nothing short of first class. The Chinese have a very giving culture, and it will become evident, especially in food culture. What is mentioned below is even more true in the Northwest of China, which is known especially for its hospitality, sort of equivalent to the Southern hospitality of America, but even more so. 

Like mentioned in earlier sections, foreigners are still something of a novelty in developing parts of China, so if you travel with a Chinese friend to their home, his family will be simply ecstatic to host a foreigner in their home. They will have no qualms about fixing dinner, letting you sleep in their beds, watching their TV, smoking their cigarettes, drinking their beer, and buying you gifts. When you are in these situations, it may feel uncomfortable to accept this amount of hospitality, but your hosts genuinely want to give you these things, it is not simply good manners. 

Food is one of the most obvious manifestation of Chinese hospitality. When a Chinese person treats you to a meal in a restaurant or in their home, you will be overwhelmed with hospitality. If you go to someone’s home, you will immediately be offered an arrangement of fruit, sunflower seeds, and a cigarette. They have most likely bought all of this specifically for you, so you should partake of some of it, but make sure to leave room for your meal!

The Chinese have a habit of always ordering/cooking more food than you can eat and pushing you to eat more than you can. When you are full and put down your chopsticks, your hosts will say something to the effect of, “You didn’t eat very much, please, please eat more.” When you say you have had enough, they will continue at least two or three more times and put a little more food on your plate. There is a sort of negotiation process that needs to take place before you are actually allowed to stop eating and it takes a little getting used to before one gets it figured out. The first few times you go to someone’s home or are invited to a restaurant, you will probably eat too much (although the food will probably be excellent). Traditionally, the host of a meal is not allowed to stop eating until the guest has stopped eating because it is seen as impolite if he does so. This figures somewhat into the negotiation process. 

After the meal, you will be offered soup and fruit of some kind to help smooth over your digestion of this massive quantity of food. After you’ve eaten this soup and fruit, you will again be offered sunflower seeds, more fruit, and more cigarettes.  Again, this whole process is part of China’s giving culture and your hosts genuinely want you to be fully satisfied and happy. If you don’t want more, tell your hosts that you are very satisfied and could not possibly want any more. After a brief negotiation, they will believe you and you’re done with your meal!

Besides being hospitable in regards to food, Chinese people are all very hospitable and nice on the streets, with the exceptions of the bigger, New York City type of places, where there are more jerks. When you are a foreigner in a mid-sized or small city, people are very nice and will help you out with anything as long as you can communicate what you want. If you need directions, people will give you directions. If you need to buy something, they will tell/show you where to buy it. If you are just standing around by yourself, they will come up and talk to you just so they can have a conversation, maybe even in English! If you are in a city without a lot of foreigners, there is a 70% chance that the person will ask for your phone number so they can contact you later and if they find out that you have a QQ account (Chinese version of AIM/Myspace), there is a 100% chance they will ask you for your QQ number. Everyone wants to be able to say they have a foreign friend - one, because it makes them seem cooler, but also because they genuinely want to be your friend. It is very different from the American experience, where foreigners are ever-present and no one gives them a second glance. 

In regards to my personal experience in Lanzhou, every time I went outside of the campus by myself, I had a conversation with strangers in both languages. Whether I went to a shop, to see the Yellow River, to stroll around downtown, no matter where I went, I always had at least one conversation with a stranger, about half the time in English. Sometimes they were short, but a genuine effort was made on both sides, which is what really matters. If the conversations were in Chinese, they were always longer and a sort of crowd always gathered. The person would begin talking to me, then would wave to his friends, who came over. Then strangers wondered what was going on, so they came over to watch, and so I would be surrounded by 6, 8, or 10 people while having a simple conversation! This kind of thing happens very frequently in areas without a lot of foreigners. A great way to start this conversation is to, if you smoke, ask for a light, or, if you don’t, ask what time it is. Very simple questions, but they will get you started!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

To My Global Readers: Thank You!

I know I do not usually post stuff on Sundays, but I wanted to just take a minute to say thank you to all of the people who are reading the blog - I'm really happy that you guys keep coming back. I had no idea I'd be looking at hits from just about every corner of the planet when I started this blog! You guys are just really really awesome!

Here's a list of countries where I've recently been getting hits from - I'd love to hear where you are from and talk with you about it! In no particular order:

United States
South Africa
Hong Kong

19 countries - holy crap.....that's just awesome. Thanks guys. I'll be back in China soon, and I'll be able to REALLY give you some good stuff.

Overlooking Lanzhou from Lanzhou University of Technology's 后山

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Midnight Hotel Phone Call

During your travels in China, unless you have friends in every city, you will at least stay in one hotel. 

Hotel rooms in mid-to-large sized cities contain something that American hotels never do: condoms and sexual paraphernalia. On a desk somewhere in your room may be a little plastic case containing condoms, some kind of scented towels and underwear for each person, or something of the like (they are not free, of course). 
Usually, the cases are bigger and with more stuff, but you get the idea....

Besides the obvious fun this could provide for the customer, it is also part of a governmental effort to combat the growing HIV problem among the Chinese population.

The hotel does not stop there. Later in the evening, some hotels will even give you a call asking you if you need any “services”. Basically, they are asking if you want any girls to come up to your room. The costs vary, of course, but if you do not wish to have these services or if you cannot speak Chinese, it is a good idea to unplug the phone in your room if you do not want this kind of call. If your Chinese is not very good and you don’t understand and do not make your meaning clear, they will send up the women anyway. If they come, simply tell them you do not need their services. 我不需要服务。

The phone is pretty much for this purpose only - the hotel doesn't call you just to ask if you have enough towels.

This is an interesting aspect of Chinese culture. Since prostitution is 'technically' illegal in China and sex is a taboo topic of conversation, it is strange that hotels will arrange such services. China is known to be a country which loves to grow its economy, so something as lucrative as hotel prostitution is something which businessmen have not overlooked.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Seeing Foreigners

As discussed in Two Chinas, there are entirely different countries to be found within China’s vast territory. These countries deal with seeing foreigners in different ways.

In developing regions without much Westernization, all foreigners will be stared at. This is not an exaggeration or any kind of warning against anything sinister in nature; it is simply a fact.

Generally speaking, the farther inland a person goes, and especially the further Northwest a person goes, the less foreigners that person will see. Therefore, inland Chinese and Northwestern Chinese people do the most staring in the country. Also, generally speaking, the smaller the city, the less foreigners there will be.

Because these areas see few foreigners, foreigners are something of a novelty. The stories that one hears about people practicing their English on the street become real experiences in the developing cities. If a foreigner is traveling somewhere in a developing area by themselves, it is pretty much guaranteed that a Chinese person will try to practice their English with them on every day of their travel.
Something like this situation

If the foreigner can speak Chinese, the Chinese will be very, very surprised and will talk so much that the foreigner will soon be exhausted by their excitement, although both parties will, of course, have a nice chat. In developing areas, it is common to hear “You are the first foreigner I have ever seen” or “You are the first foreigner I have ever talked to”, which is an unnerving phrase the first time one hears it. After living in Northwest China for half a year, I never got used to hearing that. The first time you hear someone say this is an unforgettable experience.

In nearly-developed and developed regions such as Tianjin, Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, foreigners are very common, so the Chinese people on the street will not give you a second glance. Because foreigners are very common, do not expect special treatment except for a possible English-language transaction at the local market. Nearly every major market, commercial business center, and service center will have English language services and possibly even English language signs and labels.

Because the developed areas see so many foreigners and learning basic English vocabulary is a must for many workers, some Chinese in these areas hold different attitudes towards foreigners.

Some Chinese see foreigners as a means to get rich by posing as taxi drivers, who then charge exorbitant fees. Some become tour guides, interpreters, or attempt to lure the unknowing tourist/newly-come worker into places such as a KTV or an art gallery and then using a variety of tricks to get money and/or a free fun activity.
A Beijing tour guide. A real one, not a sham!

Some Chinese see the foreigners as foreigners, outsiders who should not be in China. They believe the foreigners may be able to help China, but they should help China from outside the country and that China belongs to the China. These people exist and the traveler will occasionally find them, but they are not by any means the biggest group of people in these areas.

The last group consists mainly of students and the college-educated, who have embraced English as a means of broadening their minds and wish to dedicate their lives to the study of foreign language and helping foreign people.

These people will perhaps be the friendlies and most refreshing English-speaking Chinese people you will meet because they genuinely wish to make new friends and speak another language and learn about another culture. They will be outgoing, friendly, hospitable, and extroverted to the point where it may scare you. Never fear, they mean nothing but the best.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

1 Billion+ "The Human Problem"

As everyone knows, China has the biggest population in the world. As a consequence to this, China implemented the One Child Policy, China’s most well known law. [I won't do a One Child Policy commentary here and don't intend to write one unless people leave me comments and messages wanting me to] Besides families who can officially only have one child, many other parts of life in China are affected because of the potential infrastructural problems. 

Everything I'm showing you is real, in some cases, even normal. It's something you think would make life miserable all the time, and it is annoying at first to be in the middle of so many crowds, but you will get used to it. After I got used to it, I began to find it somewhat amusing, especially Chinese lines....Chinese lines are really funny.

Because of the simple factor of numbers, many aspects of life of China are vastly different from life in America.

For example - Chinese lines. There are so many people that people think that if they don't push people out of the way in order to be first, then they won't go at all. So, this is what happens. This is a "line" in the Lanzhou railway station from when I went to Yinchuan.

One of the most obvious ways in which the population problem in China manifests itself is in traffic. In China’s big, and even medium-sized cities, traffic is a huge problem because of the sheer number of cars on the road. People in China view having a car as a status symbol, a symbol of wealth and sophistication, so everyone who can afford a car will buy one. As a consequence, China’s roads are crowded with cars. 
This is becoming increasingly common.

Bigger cities limit the number of cars that can be bought per month, as well as restricting the movements of the cars. For example, cars with license plates ending in odd numbers cannot go certain places on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday, while the even numbered cars can go to those places. Even with these measures, private cars prevent the biggest infrastructural problem in cities. Cities cannot simply widen the roads, because in most cases, the road has already been widened and high rises or other businesses have already been built very close to the roadway. Chinese cities are packed to the bursting. No open spaces to speak of. 

Lanzhou, China is a typical example. If you click on this and see the full image, it's easy to see that there's really no free space to speak of. How would they widen roads? It's not the quick fix like in the U.S

Not only private cars, but taxis and public buses also clog the roadway. Because the people who cannot afford cars still need to get around, China’s public transportation system is miles ahead of most American cities. Every city has taxi cabs and cheap bus lines for everyone else to use. These bus services are necessary, because there is simply no way for every Chinese person to have a car and not everyone can afford a taxi. A bus ride in China costs 1元. Distance does not matter as long as you stay on the same bus. Because buses are so cheap, they are often very, very crowded, particularly on the weekends. 

When you get on a bus in China, especially on the weekends, forget about personal space. Forget about legroom and a comfortable temperature within the bus. You should probably also forget about standing. Sometimes, on the most crowded weekends, if the bus hits a big bump, it will be impossible to fall over because there are so many people. In the crowded buses, it is important to watch out for pickpockets, so constantly check that you have everything. 

Another way you can see just how many people China has is to take a train. Trains, with the exception of sleeping compartments, are packed full to the bursting with standing tickets and is not a fun way to travel. The sitting compartments of the trains are hot, dirty, and those who have standing tickets stand between the seats, between the cars, in the aisles, in front of the bathroom, and everywhere there is room. By contrast, the more expensive and vastly more comfortable sleeping compartments are the opposite. It is the train equivalent of first class and makes long trips more comfortable. A 36-hour train ride from Guangzhou to Lanzhou in a seat is not a fun time.

I was riding on a train with my buddy Benjamin Xi and he said "If you really want to get a look at China's 'human problem,' take a look around. He's right. The trains are a great example.

You can see the people sleeping in the, it's not fun.

Another obvious way the population problem manifests itself in is public toilets. Public toilets are few and far between because there is no room to put them everywhere and even the toilets are different. To save materials and also because Chinese people don’t like the idea of sitting on a public toilet seat, the Chinese have what are called “squatty potties.” The toilet bowl is built into the ground and the user puts both feet on either side and squats to do their business (bring your own paper). This part of Chinese life will take some getting used to and there will be a time or two when you forget to bring your own paper. Ask someone for help or improvise.

You're lucky I put a clean pic up here.....Chinese toilets can be pretty gnarly...

It seems like something that's not a big deal, but China's huge population essential defines their lives. Transportation, "comfort", toilets, city planning, notions of privacy (almost none), a group mindset, and more are all defined by China's population. It's a serious issue. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Two Chinas

There are two Chinas. One China exists in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong. The other China exists in the rest of the country. The main reason these places are as good as different countries is because of development and Westernization. 

In short - this

versus this:

It's a world of difference.

One is even able to find different countries and different worlds even within these Westernized cities. For example, in Beijing, I stayed in hotels and homes far away from the brightly lit and English speaking shopping districts - places with no foreigners and no English speakers - places where speaking Chinese is needed to survive. Even the country’s capital has poor places to rival the images we see of Indian and African slums. These places have one room shacks, trash-strewn alleys and streets, and poorly-clothed people and children. 

Beijing Alleyway/Slum

Not all areas of China are as beautiful as Wangfujing or Tiananmen Square. 

Wanjfujing Shopping District

This is simply reality in China - some areas are incredibly beautiful and amazing to behold, but some areas are poor, polluted, dirty, and difficult to live in. The same is true in every country, and China is no exception. If you want to find a new, excited, fast-paced way of life, you can find it. If you want to find a more rural, relaxed, and traditional environment, you can also find it. 

An easy way to find older and more traditional Chinese culture is to stay in one of Beijing’s remaining Hutongs, which are alleys populated with elderly locals and families.

Within these alleys one can find all sorts of food and community. The elderly sit in the courtyards between their houses or on the street and play chess and watch the passers-by and families come and go as they go to work and pick up their children from school. It is obvious that most of these people know each other and see each other daily, so it is truly a community in the utmost sense of the word. Sadly, these areas are dwindling year by year as some are bulldozed annually to make way for apartment and business building, but some are legally protected by the government as cultural landmarks. 

In Beijing there are many districts, and within some districts, especially in areas concentrated with apartment buildings, things seem more….well, Chinese, and a little less developed. The restaurants are all Chinese and English speakers are rare. Life is more easy-going than the hustle and bustle of the Beijing that most foreigners know. It is the ideal halfway point for a Westerner who knows Chinese to stay if they enjoy the Northeastern style. 永泰小区, in the northern part of Beijing, is one example of this type of place. 
(Pic: The building I stayed in in 永泰小区)

Because Mandarin Chinese is based on the Beijing dialect, understanding the local language presents few problems to the Mandarin learner, in stark contrast to the rest of China, which has numerous dialects. Dialects will be discussed in full in a later chapter. 

Away from the Hutongs are the huge (and expensive) shopping districts of Wangfujing, which is famous throughout China and contains its share of English speakers. The area is brightly lit with lights resembling rain on many streets and modernization is everywhere. Nearby Chang’e Avenue is stuffed with cars, government buildings, and Tiananmen Square lies in the heart of downtown. 

These famous and developed areas of Beijing, just like other famous areas in China, are not much different than the big cities of America. They will, of course, be Chinese, but the feel of these areas and the look of them will be approximately the same. The people who wish to travel to China, but not get uncomfortable with the language difficulty or see and experience things that might shock them will feel right at home in these areas. 

In China’s poorer and less-developed regions away from the east coast, one will find a completely different world of Chinese culture. You can see crowds of people practicing Tai Chi on the streets, doing exercises, playing cards or chess or mahjong, quietly sipping tea and watching the traffic, or downing a few beers with friends and talking to passersby. These things happen in Beijing and the other big cities, but not as much. The environment of the smaller cities very much enhances the feeling of community and people are more relaxed and take things easier. 

A strange phenomenon emerges in many poor areas of the world, including China. In the poorer and less-developed areas, people have less money and live in poorer conditions, but seem to be much happier and content people overall than the wealthy and comfortable people in the cities. The nicest, happiest, and most hospitable people I ever met in China lived in a small 7‘x11’, one room house with very few possessions, no private bathroom, no shower facilities, and even their house was not fully closed to the houses on either side. The top 1.5 feet of the 10-foot wall was open to either side.

 The most kind and hospitable people I have met, on the whole, live in what America calls poverty. The less people have, the more willing they are to share what they have with you. If you spend all your time in China’s big urban areas and never experience what life in rural China is like, you will have missed a wonderful opportunity. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Occupy Taipei?

Read "Occupy Taipei"

Apparently there were 300 protesters in Taipei that were free to have an "open air discussion" about the gap between the rich and poor in Taiwan. I have to admit, I was pretty surprised by that. I know that Taiwan is a heck of a lot freer than China when it comes to stuff like that, but I was still surprised that it took place with little/no incident. "China Digital Times" is a pretty good newspaper - I'd recommend it!

Another Monk Sets Himself On Fire

This is a pretty serious issue in China today. It's become serious enough that most foreigners are not allowed to visit Tibet at this time as well as parts of Xinjiang and Sichuan. Xinjiang and Tibet are especially touchy parts of China when it comes to tensions between the local and Beijing government. In the newspapers, it's been cooked down to a "resentment of Chinese rule"....yes, but that's a really cold and unemotional phrase.

Many of the people in those regions feel that Beijing is forcing Han Chinese culture down their throat - making them celebrate the CPC, speak Mandarin, and things of that nature. They feel as if the CPC is trying to take away their culture - and to some extent, they're right. Although they are "autonomous regions," the Party still has the final word. Now, the government is relocating some Han Chinese people to go and work in these regions, and when the time comes for those Han Chinese to find a job - they are 99% guaranteed to get it over the local people who have been needing a job for a really long time.

I wish I had more time to elaborate, but I gotta go to a job interview - be back tomorrow for a better and longer post!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Re: From Drinking Songs to Pet Theories

I was reading a post by a friend of mine from high school, Michael Rogers, and was really struck by it. In a small nutshell, the post is about the lack of unity and community amongst people in American society, with one example of unity being drinking songs (personally, I think that's a great example).

Read his post here

I completely agree with what Michael said in his post - Americans are not very unified. Our society has become so individualistic that it is pretty difficult to have true community with people outside your immediate social circles.

I felt this way the entire time I was in China - I felt as if I had been missing something my whole life and I found it in China. Part of that missing something was the community in Chinese society. It's a truly indescribable feeling within - when you're at a restaurant by yourself in China, people you don't know might ask you to join them - sure yeah, probably because I'm a foreigner, but if they see their friends on the street, they do the same. People playing chess together on the streets, doing Taichi or other martial arts/dances in groups on the street - there's an energy and spirit within a community-based society that America just doesn't have, and it's America's loss.

There's a variety of reasons America seems wired for individualism. Here's my opinion. I've got a few big reasons, or "pet theories" (thanks Michael) about why I think America's so individualistic.

1. City planning/use of space - most of America's cities are really big in terms of area. We have so much space that we put stuff way too far apart and it's impossible to take a bike or walk anywhere outside of major cities like LA, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, etc. Chinese cities are jam-packed together and people are always visible on the street selling food/clothes/trinkets etc. or just walking. People are just around each other more often in China, and that gives people the opportunity to create a community.

2. No public transit - everyone has their own personal car. This seems like a weird reason, but I've had some interesting conversations with strangers in a taxi or on the subway in America and in China. People  bored on a subway car or taxi have a chance to talk to each other.

3. Social stigmas - In the American south, alcohol has a kind of stigma attached to it because of people's religious affiliations. This is something Michael touched on in his post. I've had some good conversations in bars in America and in China. Bars are a good place to go have a drink alone or to meet people, if you want.

4. Technology/media - the iPod, iPhone, laptops, TV, magazines, etc. draw us away from the world around us and get us focused on these little spheres of information and make us completely forget the fact that there are people all around us who have their own stories and their own lives that, in reality, are probably more intrinsically more interesting than Kristen Stewart's. These things are finding their way into Chinese society, especially in big cities like Beijing and Guangzhou. The traditional culture of China is dying among young people today because all they care about it having an iPad or seeing what shows are on TV or what the NBA is up to. It's a serious problem

5. History- our entire country was born out of the spirit of "F**k you, we're gonna break away [from England's tyrannical government] and run this country ourselves!!!" Individuality is in our blood. That's just the way it is.

6. Childhood Shaping - from the time Americans are babies, they are asked to make individualistic choices. "What color do you want your room?", "Where/what do you want to eat?", kids are given their own bedrooms as children, and the list goes on. "My parents raised me to be an individual" is a pretty common phrase in American society.

7. Money-driven society.

Michael wrote this in his post, and I think it's written very well:

 "It’s not about beer and it’s not exactly about drinking songs. It’s about the cultural traditions that unite people."

Yes - I agree completely.

But the thing is that America hasn't been around long enough to have developed a lot of cultural traditions. Cultural traditions are born out generations and generations and generations of practices. It's only been a couple hundred years - look at China's rich cultural traditions - it took them 5000 years to do that! Give America some time - we'll get there eventually.

Don't click this link. It's just a tracking code

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Grasp Chinese Website Review

Hey guys, today I am busy at work, but I want to tell you about this website I just reviewed - Grasp Chinese - an online language-learning program. (Go to Grasp Chinese) I wasn't offered money to do this review and I did not receive a check for this review. This review is motivated by my desire for others to learn Chinese - not a paycheck. Here's what I wrote:

"Grasp Chinese is a fully online language-learning program. It shows great overall strength, can build a great foundation for learning spoken Chinese, and suffers no significant shortcomings. 

The first thing that becomes evident to the first-time visitor is the professional, yet inviting design of their webpage. The website is well designed, easy to navigate, and does not suffer from the embarrassing presence of “Chinglish,” which can be an unfortunate problem with Chinese-made sites which teach Chinese to foreigners. A fun and well-made video which graces the home page introduces the learner to their program. The program is based around an American being introduced to the Chinese language by his guide as he visits China for a business conference. 

Grasp Chinese has many strengths in its learning program. One is convenience. It is completely online and needs no downloads or installations. Its lessons are presented in PowerPoint style, so loading time is fast and the videos are easy to navigate. Another is its natural style of learning. The lessons presented are not textbook-style lessons, but are lessons taught through natural conversation. In my time in China, I had many conversations like the ones on this website. The way one truly grasps a language is through questions, and Grasp Chinese has found a way to incorporate natural questions into their lessons without it seeming forced. The lessons are all very short (4-6 minutes each) and teach a great deal. The subscriber is able to go back, forward, pause, slow down, speed up, and repeat - the lesson can truly be at the student’s pace. The student’s learning is reinforced through writing, listening, and recognizing flashcards (in some lessons). There is also a phrasebook for each lesson. Everything is available, easy to access, and well designed, which makes for a good learning environment. 

Grasp Chinese uses a quasi-immersion style of teaching, which is one of the best ways to learn a language. As someone who learned Chinese through full immersion, I learned a lot, but had many difficulties in the limited English environment. However, with Grasp Chinese, the subscriber has access to a completely bilingual teacher, which will help bring the gap that can often occurs in true immersive situations.

However, like every language-learning system, it has its shortcomings, one in particular: its focus on Pinyin and complete lack of Chinese characters. Although Pinyin is used in primary school for kids to learn how to pronounce their language, it is not used by anyone in China over the age of 10. It is great for reinforcing pronunciation, but the 汉字 are what is used in everyday life and are indispensable in reading.  It is understandable that introducing Chinese characters in an online medium is difficult, but it is a vital aspect of language and simply cannot be overlooked. This is probably the biggest hole in Grasp Chinese’s program. However, the Grasp Chinese are currently preparing lessons involving character learning, so this gap will soon be gone.

A strange characteristic of the program, although ultimately more natural and for the better, is its lesson organization. Because the American begins learning Chinese from the moment he arrives in the airport, he learns airport terminology before learning to introduce himself - something that sounds strange to the average language learner. However, it is part of the immersion-style learning. Another concern involves the pronunciation of the American in the dialogues. His Chinese pronunciation carries a strong American accent , which can be annoying and could possibly turn-off new users. 

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed using Grasp Chinese. For once, there is a language-learning program out there that is not boring! Grasp Chinese provides a great foundation for those learning to speak Mandarin Chinese. I hope the Grasp Chinese team will implement a few lessons of basic Chinese character learning. The first 10 lessons are free - a true gift to the beginning Mandarin learner and a full subscription to the site is only 14.99! It really is a great value for a language-learning program. I wish I had known about this site before I paid so much money for Rosetta Stone! Both programs have their strengths, of their course, but besides the lack of Chinese characters, has no significant shortcomings. I am sold."

It's a great program and I'd recommend it to beginning Chinese learners! I'll be back to my regular posts tomorrow!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Seeing the Elephant

If you've ever spent significant time abroad, there's just something about it that is uncommunicable about your experience - that's what I'm talking about today. If you've been abroad, tell me where, when, and if you agree - I'd love to hear about it!

There is a phrase that combat veterans sometimes use when referring to the experiences of war and why they are so often reluctant to talk about it. It's called "seeing the elephant." It's an odd phrase that has some interesting origins, but I don't really want to get into that, but here's Wikipedia if you really want to know:

"Seeing the Elephant" Wiki

What I really want to talk about is the meaning the phrase. 

Currently, the phrase seems to pop up a lot among military combat veterans, particularly the enlisted. When someone has "seen the elephant," it means they have seen combat. 

It sounds simple, but there are a lot of dimensions to seeing combat - I was reading "Shooter" by Jack Coughlin and he talks about seeing the elephant. He says that if you've never felt the sting of smoke in your eyes, never heard a bullet zing by you, never killed a man, never smelled the stench of death, then you can never really talk about war with veterans. 

He says that in order for you to truly understand what war is, you have to be there and experience it yourself. Otherwise, war is just something sterilized you've seen on TV or read about in books.

This may seem like a clumsy parallel, but I believe that living abroad is the same way - you just have to be there to understand what kind of experience living in China is. When you've walked through the Hutongs of Beijing,

                         When you've hung out with people that don't speak your language,

When you smell the garbage dump you pass by every day to get to class (or go to a restaurant),

When you go across the world and meet wonderful friends who become your adopted family,

When you meet a girl you like and she likes you, but her dialect is so heavy you can't communicate well,

When you've been disturbed in the middle of the night by 'women of the night' coming into your hotel room.

When you've tried and failed to understand so much dialect from random cities that you feel like your language study has been worthless,

When you go down to a place as old, majestic, and historic as the Yellow River with your buddies just to skip rocks and kill time,

there's just something that is beyond communication to others. You tell them and they say, "that's cool," but that's all. There's just an added dimension there which is impossible to really convey. You had to be there.

You had to see the elephant. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Not So Hot

Hey guys, I have not been feeling well these past few days, so....sorry about that. I won't be putting up anything substantial today.

Today's post was going to be about "seeing the elephant," which is something that combat veterans talk about when they first see the sights of war. They say that "unless you've seen the elephant, you can't understand what we've been through." I wanted to draw a parallel between that and living in China.

I'm not so good, so I'll just point you to some interesting stories until I can recover. I'll try again tomorrow.

Farmer Finds Ancient Treasure
Traditional Boots and Hats (Picture story)
Panda Birthday!

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Friday, October 7, 2011

"A Step Closer"

So I recently found a really great China blog (which, I may regret saying, is more interesting than mine....I think (?) ) - link to it at the bottom ;)

She wrote something that really touched me and sums up the reason why I loved China as much as I did and why I want to go back to China as soon as possible. 

"In China, especially recently, I live as the person I always wanted to be. That hero-version of yourself that you have in your heart. Everybody has it, I know you do, and I know that the times you ever feel most proud of yourself and when you ever feel truly happy, it’s because you’re taking a step closer to the person you always wanted to be."

That's perfect. That's exactly right. I experienced some of the most grueling tests of my life there. I truly found out what it was like to learn and actively exercise my language learning, self-reliance in the face of self-doubt, self-control in many situations, and experience true personal growth every day. China allowed me to flourish in every way possible. 

My friends know I am not exactly a friend-maker or like to be the center of attention, but Chinese people just loved me so much that I met new friends pretty much every single day I was over there. Lanzhou University of Technology, 兰州理工大学,never hosted a true exchange student before, so I was in very high demand on campus - I was famous. For the first time in my life, I truly felt like I was special and that I could accomplish anything and that with enough work, nothing was beyond my grasp.

Then I had to go home:

After I returned home, people were just as angry, if not angrier, at the government for doing this and doing that than they were before I left....mortgages/housing, credit, corporate greed, etc. - everyone feels beaten down and no one really believes that America is the land of opportunity anymore. Everything seems out of control and no one can do anything about it. People are so caught up in their careers and in their shopping - there is no sense of community in America, and I really miss that. I miss so much about China - community, my friendships, meal-time customs, "Northwestern Hospitality", speaking Chinese, friendliness, the mountains.....just so much. I am homesick for China. 

I miss that feeling of, as "Poise On Arrows" said, being one step closer to that person I've always wanted to be. I found that missing part of my heart and my spirit in Lanzhou, China....and now I'm back in small-town Texas and I've lost it.

If there is anyone out there who doesn't really know what to do with their life and wants an easy job, just apply for an English teaching job in China - all you need to teach university-level English in China is a Bachelor's Degree. As soon as I get the money, I'm going right back to China.

I want to find my true self again - I want to feel that true happiness inside again. I don't want to become 老男孩 - the old boy, the one who yearns for the loves of years gone by. I don't want this to become "Life After China."

*P.S. - don't forget to comment - you don't have to sign up or anything. Just leave your name and comment!!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs and An Assortment of Things

Steve Jobs passed away yesterday and people from every country are creating tributes for his memory and are remembering a man who changed the world.

China Remembers Steve Jobs

Although many are sad about Jobs' death, life goes on as usual. China's Golden Week after it's National Day on the 1st of October is bringing in a lot of tourist money! This is the Forbidden City on Tuesday:

                                                                  Pretty crazy, huh?

The Great Wall (I'm assuming at Badaling, its busiest section overall)

Beijing West Railway Station

Just thought I'd show you those pictures. China's just got a ridiculous amount of people and it's hard to believe, even when you're there, until you are confronted with situations like these. The exhibit for the Terra Cotta Warriors is ALWAYS like this. It's insane, and I don't care to go back and repeat the experience.

Raising a Thorny Issue

I'd just encourage you to read this movie review/expose - it's not something I can explain, but it'll give you some cultural insight.

In other news, 12 baby pandas have been born so far this year at the Chengdu Reseach Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Just try to tell me that this isn't cute. Just try it. You'd be a liar.

Taichi in Guilin city, Guangxi Province, China. It has started becoming more and more popular among foreigners. The man in white is from Slovenia. Who could ask for a better place to practice Taichi than Guilin? It is known as one of the most beautiful cities in China, and this picture shows you why.

However, not everything about China is going swimmingly. Other parts of Guangxi and most of Southern China is going through a huge drought. Some people have to walk for an hour or longer to get water.

Drought in Southern China

It's so sad to me that people have to live this way all over the world - including the country I love the most: China. Many people in China live very hard lives and there's not a lot we can do about it except to go there and show them some love and help, if we can. A charity's reach can only go so far. Life doesn't always turn out like it does in Disney movies. People live in poverty. People are hungry. Thirsty. They need help. Sadly, many Chinese charities have been shown to be corrupt, but international organizations do exist to help Chinese children and others.

SOS Children's Villages - I talked to a girl on Facebook from Bangladesh who was an SOS child. Now she is pursuing her Master's Degree at a great school in Dhaka, the country's capital.

Chinese Children Adoption International
Rural China Education Program
Love Without Boundaries

There is actually an entire Wikipedia page about charities operating within China - wow!
List of Charities Operation Within the People's Republic of China
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